African American slavery is remembered for its constant abuse and brutality towards African Americans. One aspect that is less known is the music. The music used during slavery and in the context of slavery enhanced the experience for both slave and slave master.
Music in slavery came from different sources. There were many famous slave songs such as “Roll Jordan Roll” and “Follow The Drunkin’ Gourd”. As well as slaves who had musical talent, expressing their talent to their master and his/her friends. There were also famous slavery protest songs written by former slaves containing the spirit of slavery.
Most of the music coming from slaves, came when they sang during field work, these songs served many purposes such as helping the slaves cope with the tragedy of their lives and also as a way of communication between slaves . In the film 12 years a slave, the main character Solomon is surrounded by fellow slaves standing near a passed slaves tomb in one scene. The slaves begin singing a famous historical slaves song, “Roll Jordan Roll”, and Solomon first looks uneasy and out of place but then slowly starts singing until finally singing passionately along with the other slaves. (12 Years A Slave.) This scene is an example of music being used as a coping mechanism. Solomon, a slave that has socially and mentally excluded himself from life as a slave, is not oping with the loss of this passed slave but instead coping with the truth that he himself is a slave. As Solomon begins singing with more passion he is releasing to the fact that he himself is a slave and this is what his life will be and is also accepting his role as part of this group of slaves. Slave songs were also used to spread messages from slave to slave, even in the most famous such as “Follow The Drunkin’ Gourd” and “Roll Jordan Roll, sometimes sharing secrets of escape. (PBS). Music aided slaves by helping obtain knowledge of every slaves hope: escape. The music sang by the slaves helped them emotionally cope with their life as well as becoming a secret form of communication.
In addition to this, music was used by slave masters, with a more tactical and intimidating purpose. Another scene in the film 12 years a slave, shows the slaves first meeting their new slave master, who begins singing to them “Run N*gger Run” as they start working. (12 Years A Slave). The slave master in this scene is toying with the slaves minds, angering them but also striking fear. Slave masters also expected slaves to sing while they were working ordering them to make a noise. (Digital History). This adds to the mental games slave masters played as they forced slaves to sing, meaning they were at constant pressure from not only the hard laboring work but also to keep the slave master entertained. Music was a reliable tool used by slave masters to control their slaves by breaking them down.
Some slaves had musical skill, and this would be very useful as their skill would be looked on very positively by their slave master. The character Solomon in the film 12 Years a Slave, was one of these slaves, knowing how to play the fiddle, which would help elevate Solomon from field slave to a regular in the slave masters house. (12 Years A Slave.) A musical knowledge proved valuable as Solomon demonstrates, a skill that could rid a slave from every having to work in the field again. Slaves that were skilled in instruments that were primarily African such as the drums and banjo would develop a talent in more European based instruments such as the the flute or panpipes just to impress their master. (Digital History) Musical talent had the ability to completely changes a slaves life for the better , and many slaves were aware of this. Slave musicians had an undeniable advantage against fellow slaves, and the music they knew propelled them to a more secure life.
Some people who had the luxury of making music around the time of slavery chose to cause social change with their songs and protest slavery, either former slaves or people who just wanted to stop the injustice. “Get off Tha Track” is one famous example, a song written in the 1840s and became an anthem for the anti slavery movement, that was written by the Hutchinson family who became vital speakers in the anti slavery conversation. (VOA) With a song like this the Hutchinson family proved that people can protest through a song and spread the message across to many influencing other anti slavery songs to come. Songs like these would be proven very effective as they were an accessible way for all people to understand the tragedy of slavery. Anti slavery protest songs impacted slavery because they added to the Abolishment movement, and gave a voice to many passionate people, and these voices would eventually be the reason for the ending of slavery.
Music in slavery was a powerful force that is lesser known to people when discussing slavery. Proving both beneficial to slave and slave master, music was a usual part of the landscape during slavery. Music also helped slave musician rise among the ranks of their fellow slaves, earning them positions with less danger and abuse. Music used outside of the fields helped spread the anti slavery message that was needed to end it.